CW: Suicide, depression
In 2014, Billy Watts was a senior at Renaissance High School in Detroit. Known as DJ KillBill313, he produced and DJ'd music that slotted into the 2010s hip-hop mini genre cloud-rap; glitchy, hazy and murky – an unrefined version of Florida producer XXYYXX.
On the morning of the 26th of October, 2014, Watts uploaded a photo of some food to his Instagram, captioned "My last meal". The final image he uploaded that day was of his wristwatch, captioned, "Time to see if my watch is really waterproof." Not long after, Watts jumped off Detroit's MacArthur Bridge. His body was found three days later.
Less than a year after Watts' suicide, a man calling himself David Higgs took to 4chan to document the story of falling in love with a woman named Julie. He wrote of their relationship's inception, its eventual downfall and how he had taken a bottle of pills while writing the story. He ended his post with the message "i love you guys i realy do i was scard of dying alone but i , not alon n thank you for that I am gonna go lie don because i realy dont fell well. Goodby."
David Higgs never posted on the forum again. Various 4chan users claimed Higgs had taken his own life, but there was no official confirmation of his death; the name he used may have been a pseudonym, or the account could have been fabricated. Regardless, the story has become a dark piece of internet folklore, referred to in a number of Reddit, Medium and 4chan posts.
Both Higgs and Watts' stories had one thing in common: the cloud-rap instrumental track "I'm God", by Clams Casino. Higgs referred to it twice in his 4chan posts, while Watts had posted the song to his Instagram in the weeks leading up to his death.
Released in 2011, "I'm God" – which hit streaming services in April of 2020 – is widely regarded as the birth of cloud rap (or "based rap", depending on who you're speaking to). The song's production is drenched in a stretched-out sample of Imogen Heap's "Just For Now", and was made famous by Lil B, who rapped over the psychedelic instrumental.
"I think I made it in the springtime of April, 2009," Michael Volpe, AKA Clams Casino, says over the phone. "I sent the beat to Lil B. He really reacted to that one and he just kind of freaked out. He recorded [his vocals], and that was the first big thing that we started doing."
Following that early collaboration, Lil B and Clams Casino became fundamental to each other's success. Their early work together was experimental, helping to shape the underground sound of the 2010s with their re-invention of lo-fi hip-hop.
Over the next ten years, Clams Casino became one of rap's defining producers, helping craft the early sounds of A$AP Rocky along the way. His production on A$AP's Live. Love. ASAP was universally heralded, and he went on to work with rappers like Vince Staples, Yung Lean, The Weeknd, Mac Miller, ASAP Mob, Schoolboy Q, Lil Peep, Kelela, FKA twigs and Danny Brown. But as more of Clams' work hit streaming services, "I'm God" was still missing. Fans wondered if it would ever be uploaded.
After getting clearance from Imogen Heap for the use of the sample, "I'm God" finally dropped on streaming services on the 24th of April, 2020, almost a decade after its original release. "People have been asking for a while," says Volpe. "I'd have loved to have done it sooner. For everyone to be involved, everyone had to be happy with the situation."
Of course, before it made its way to streaming sites, the song was already online, via YouTube vids and Soundcloud rips, and gained a cult following – partly due to the stories of both Higgs and Watts. The comments section of one fan-made video for "I'm God" became a place to mourn lost loved ones. Uploaded by AceDaCreator to YouTube a few months after the song's release, it's a montage of scenes from an obscure 1989 French made-for-television film, Perdue Dans New York.
Spliced underneath Casino’s wrenchingly intimate beat is a series of disturbing images: snippets of people wearing face masks at the beach, calming ocean waves, women running, shots of New York City, eery close-ups of two sisters. The video became synonymous with the song. Scroll through the comments section and it's a graveyard of memories: YouTube users come to the video to remember their lost ones or to mark the anniversary of a loved one's death. At the time of writing, the video currently has over 25 million views, and comments are still written regularly. The title of the video has been updated in tribute to both DJKillBill313 and David Higgs.
"I don't know much about [the deaths]," says Volpe. "I've kind of heard stuff here and there, like on the video, but I don't know the stories in-depth."
In March of 2018, another fan-made video hit the internet. Created by Hamburg filmmakers September Tales, it wordlessly re-enacted David Higgs' story, backed by the Clams Casino production.
Despite the notoriety attached to it, the song has also resonated in different ways. Reddit, 4chan, hip-hop forums and YouTube comments are riddled with stories of hope and recovery. "I'm God" is as much a story of belief as anything; dozens of commenters speak of the impact the song had on them as they struggled with depression.
"People send me messages on how important it is to them," says Volpe. "Listening to it helped them get through whatever it was they were going through. I can't think of anything specific, especially as it's been so long now. But they would say, 'When I was a teenager, it helped me as a kid, getting through hard times or depression.'"
Now the song has hit streaming services as part of Clams' mixtape Instrumental Relics, more fans are approaching Volpe with good news. "Everybody just kind of takes away from it what they hear, what it makes them feel," he says. "I don't know what it is about it. Maybe something related to the title and the combination of it and the video. I guess everybody interprets it in their own way."
"The best thing for me that I can ask for is making music, putting it out there," he continues. "I've been seeing a lot of messages again popping up. And it's like, you know what? That makes me inspired to keep going and keep making music."
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